Challenge grant helps five communities dream bigger

Originally published by 10/11’s Pure Nebraska Program

The “Building Community Capacity” challenge grant opportunity is delivering a huge sum of money to unrestricted endowment funds in five Nebraska communities.

A grant opportunity was available to Nebraska Community Foundation affiliated funds, where towns were challenged to raise $500,000 dollars over a certain period of time. People in Stuart, Imperial, Howells, Columbus and Keith County met the goal, and then received another $250,000 in match. It means these communities increased their unrestricted endowments by $750,000. “As a fund advisory committee, we went from granting about $1,500 a year, to more than $40,000 this next year,” Stuart Community Foundation Fund advisory committee member Jay Wallinger said. “Our account now, with the help of the challenge grant and other things we’ve raised, is about $1.1 Million. That’s a game changer for a small town.”

It’s the same feeling in Howells. “We are going to be able to grant roughly $30,000 to $40,000 with the $750,000,” Howells Community Fund advisory committee member Austin Coufal said. “If we use what had in there previously, we’ll be able to grant $40,000 plus.” The new money has changed conversations in these communities. There is plenty of dreaming going on in Imperial. “We love to partner with local organizations to make sure the senior center has a new dishwasher, or the soccer program has the goals they need,” Imperial Community Foundation Fund member Tanna Hanna said. “But how this is changing those conversations is, we are able to start thinking for the future. What is the community of Imperial need in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years?”

“It really turned up our ‘dream switch,’” Wallinger said. “That’s a Nebraska Community Foundation term, but it really turned up our dream switch as to what was possible in a small town. Conversations led to a lot of things that were never dreamed of before.” Already, these communities have been using their unrestricted endowments, which some local leaders describe as a community savings account, in many ways. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to work with Chase County schools to purchase a swivel system, and I-pads,” Hanna said. “So, this helped students learn remotely, while being a part of the classroom.” This additional money is helping local leaders develop potential new plans. “An example would be our existing Catholic school, that is now being used for a public pre-school,” Wallinger said. “We are envisioning that to be the future home of an early childhood development center.”

For many communities, the challenge grant was about more than just the money. It helped them develop new community leaders. “What it did is allow us to have a reason to re-engage with all of the past donors and new donors,” Hanna said. “We needed donations from a one-time $50 donor, to $100 a month from another donor. We even received a $50,000 donation. It required all of those in order to hit our $500,000 goal.”

Now, the new money in these local unrestricted endowments is quickly becoming a powerful tool to make small towns a great place to live, and to help get more people interested in coming back. “I honestly think an endowment for any kind of small community in Nebraska is necessary for their survival,” Coufal said. “Throughout our conversations, we brought people together towards a unified goal, and helped everyone realize that if we put our resources together, we will be able to do a lot bigger things for our community.”

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